Strange Fire, Strawmen, and Arguing from silence

strange fire

Some of you may have heard about (or become completely tired of) all the actions and reactions to the Strange Fire Conference, convened by John MacArthur late in 2013.  It really created a huge stir in the Evangelical and charismatic church world.  Basically the conference was like a modern-day church council convened by MacArthur to expose and denounce all things charismatic in the church. 

There are many different aspects of the debate concerning the legitimacy of the “charismatic movement” of the 20th Century. Many of these concerns are incredibly valid.  One of the reoccurring issues involves the much older debate over whether certain supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit still exist in the church in the same way they did in the days of the Apostles (the “continuist” position). Or whether that these gifts (namely: tongues, prophecy, healing) came to an end as the age of the Apostles closed and the canon of Scripture (the Bible) was completed (the “cessationist” position.)  Straw man arguments abound in this aspect of the debate.  Each side often paints a poor caricature of the other and then demolishes it with partial truths and isolated texts.  Yes, I said that both sides do this.  Over the past 30 years or so I’ve been one who has thrown rocks from both sides of the issue! (By the way, the same is true in the Calvinist vs. Arminian debate.  Click here to read my article on this.)

As I listened to many of the sessions of the Strange Fire Conference, and as I have read many blog posts and articles pro and con, I have had two basic takeaways.

1. Many of the speakers clearly exposed some of the deep error, excess, and dangers of much of what has gone on during the last 100 years of the modern charismatic movement(s).  And they claim that the lack of discernment and wide scale deception has gotten worse and not better.   A big part of their concern was that so many self-professing charismatics, who claim to be orthodox in their Christian faith, some of which are even well known “reformed” people, seem to NOT be willing to openly confront the gross error in the movement all around them. This has also grieved me in recent years.

But I have to admit that I have been part of the problem.

Nobody wants to alienate themselves from people they care for but with who they are deeply troubled with because they have gone increasingly into dangerous theological error.  Many of us choose to just say nothing.  Charismatics who have matured in their thinking, theology, and skills of Biblical interpretation, often see the gross error in their own movement (and churches) but choose to not address it for the sake of non-conflict or relational peace.  In refusing to confront the error we have basically forced the non-charismatic church world to rise up and do it for us.  

This is sort of like when Jonah knew what he was supposed to do (confront a city for its sin), but doesn’t want to do it and avoids the place.  He knows he is not doing the right thing as he sails away. But then the storm starts swelling and the potential for more and more innocent people to be destroyed rises.  He really wanted to just escape without conflict and remain incognito.  But he realizes that he is going to have to own up to his calling or there is going to be huge collateral damage…not only in the boat but in the city.  (Yes, that’s a somewhat loose interpretation of Jonah’s story! But I am a charismatic after all, so you should expect it!)  But the point is that God held Jonah accountable for confronting the sin in Nineveh.  And Jonah was avoiding his calling and it almost cost him and many people their lives.

2. Some of the comments made by the speakers were not only condescending toward all charismatics but also showed some glaring ignorance of what they were actually condemning. Though in the past MacArthur and others have seemed to at least acknowledge that not all charismatics were heretics.  Now the feeling I get (at least from the conference) is that they have finally given up on the entirety of the movement and are denouncing everyone. This saddened me. I didn’t get angry or take personal offense (for the reasons I mentioned in the first point above.)  But I certainly wasn’t in agreement with all that I heard from the various speakers I listened to.  (I listened to five sessions of the conference, as I recall.)  There was a lot of stuff that I had to honestly agree with. But again, there were some caricatures and straw men arguments that showed a lot of ignorance as well.

As I listened to different speakers in the conference, I also heard one of the same old (lame) arguments that cessationists use against continuists.  They accuse charismatics of “interpreting” our own experiences back into the Scripture texts.  I admit that this often happens in the charismatic community. I admit I have been guilty of it myself. See my comments on Jonah above! But the cessationists fail to look in the mirror when they take an equal but opposite position and “interpret” their own lack of experience back into the text! Let me explain.

It is intellectual dishonesty to claim that the Bible teaches that some of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit ceased somewhere around the death of the apostles or a bit later after the compiling of the books that we officially call the New Testament. Yes, you can somewhat argue this point based upon partial historical accounts and human logic.  But the Bible itself does not teach it.

And that’s exactly what I did in my earlier years as a cessationist.  But two major things happened.  I began to read my Bible on its own terms. (Click here to read my post about this huge change I went through.)  And I began to powerfully experience the spiritual gifts that had supposedly passed away.  Uh oh.

I need to break off here and finish in the next post.  Be sure and catch the conclusion.

2 thoughts on “Strange Fire, Strawmen, and Arguing from silence

  1. Mike Amschel says:

    I truly enjoy your musings on the modern church doctrine wars that abound and befuddle. I am a mere 6 year old Christian and was a cessasionist. I am no longer (some would say my experience should be denied by me 🙂

    I am looking forward to reading the Calvinist/Armenian straw man article right away. Both topics are plaguing my little community Church and my skin is not nearly as thick as yours (yet!).

    I sit on a steering committee and we go round and round. It would seem Calvinists and Cessasionist are so much more dogmatic that it scares me, and frankly drives my blood pressure through roof!

    Well, I just wanted to express my thanks for your articles and your humor.

    Pressing onward toward maturity (I hope),


    • Thanks for your kind words, Mike. A.W. Tozer warned seminarians who flocked to his Sunday evening lectures (in Chicago), “Don’t waste your time in seminary trying to solve the difficulties between Calvinists and Armenians. Much better and brighter men have not been able to settle this for 1,800 years. Better to spend your time seeking to know and encounter God.” (paraphrased from memory.) Tozer also said of himself, “I’m a cal-minian. I pray like a Calvinist and preach like an Armenian.” Which translated means, when he prayed he was very clear about who it all depended on: God. Either God would grant repentance and faith to sinners or they would never come to Him. But when he preached to sinners, he left no confusion that they were obligated to of their own volition turn away from sin and embrace Christ alone, through faith alone, for salvation.

      Here’s a website that might interest you as well:

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